Women, Writing and Difference

This was the name of a final year course I studied at university. Like a lot of book lovers out there, I chose to read English Literature, and naively thought that it would entail three years of reading lovely books and generally lazing around. What I didn’t bargain for was the sheer amount of thinking I would have to do, and how fundamentally my attitudes about life and gender and history and how I perceived the world would be challenged and changed through the reading material I was assigned. I have always been interested in women’s writing and history, but never to the extent I became interested in it at university. There I learned for the first time how women had been sidelined from literature and history; how they had been allowed to become an unspoken, unmentioned background figure, sewing in the parlour while the men were at war; scribbling away at trivial, unworthy of note novels about their limited domestic sphere; living unrecorded, undervalued, hidden lives, prevented from having a voice. The more women’s literature courses I took, the more enraged I became. I discovered more and more fantastic writers whose books were no longer read, whose words had gone unheeded and unappreciated, simply because they were written by women and written about ‘trivial’ matters. It was then that I discovered Virago and Persephone, two publishing houses whose existence was built on the belief that women’s writing deserves to be read, and has a significance of equal weight to the male dominated canon of Western literature.

Something I find encouraging about Virago in particular is their insistence on publishing intelligent, thought provoking and wonderfully written novels about women’s experiences from across all class, racial, political, religious, and national divides. Many of their books are not cosy domestic novels, and subvert the common assumption that women’s novels are just about the pursuit of love and housework. As women became more educated and were able to express themselves through the medium of literature, women novelists sprung up all over the place, and from the 19th century onwards, we have a rich body of women’s writing to choose from in exploring the myriad of experiences of our female ancestors. From angels in the house to suffragettes to war time housewives to post modern feminists, Virago covers the entire spectrum. What I particularly enjoy is that Virago’s status as a feminist press does not preclude them from publishing literature without a feminist agenda. Women who advocate traditional values are not excluded from their list, and so a real picture of womanhood, rather than just one of radical feminism, can be achieved.

Going on from this, yesterday Virginia, a wonderful regular reader and commenter, posted a very thought provoking comment, saying that she found it interesting that Virago wasn’t afraid to publish women’s writing that wasn’t feminist. Her experience of reading Charlotte M Yonge had showed a woman writing to express her strong Christian morals of female subservience to men’s superior intellectual capabilities. Yonge’s prolific output of over 100 novels, and unmarried status, however, suggests a woman who was not particularly practicing what she preached. Making a very good living, with a career, and a house of her own, was hardly the lifestyle Yonge advocated for her own heroines. This interesting, conflicting attitude is also reflected in the work of another Virago author, Louisa May Alcott, whose widely adored children’s novels depict female happiness being found in marriage, but she herself preferred to ‘paddle her own canoe’, and relished her writing career. Of course, many women novelists of the 19th century felt the need to advocate an ideal lifestyle for women that they did  not necessarily subscribe to in their novels because they needed to meet the expectations of their audience, who largely did believe that a woman’s place was in the home. Still, there is something subversive about extolling the virtues of subservient womanhood when you yourself are free to live a different life entirely.

Of late, I have noticed the same trend appearing amongst the heaving shelves of crowd pleaser pastel coloured chick lit novels filled with depressed thirty something single women desperate to get rings on their fingers. These successful career women who are writing these bestsellers are not so different to the Victorian female novelists with independent careers writing about the perfection and contentment of a closeted married life as the true pinnacle of happiness. It seems to me that Virago’s list of incendiary, passionate, wonderful novels by women written during the 20th century, are being lost in a market of fluffy, lazy, Disney fairytale – esque books that hold a happy ever after wedding day as the be all and end all of a woman’s life, taking traditional values to the extreme and denying the pleasures of the advances feminism has worked so hard for us to achieve. Do women today really want to read endless tripe about the desperate pursuit of diamond engagement rings, a cottage in the country, celebrity gossip and a Prince Charming? I certainly don’t.

So thank goodness for Virago. Thank goodness that I can read something intelligent and witty and thought provoking by a woman, that isn’t a shallow, cliche ridden pastel coloured novel about sparkly rings and mini breaks. The women who invented Virago, and the authors that originated their list, believed that women deserved better than this, and I heartily agree. We are complex, conflicting, passionate, intelligent, political, ambitious individuals who cannot be distilled into one concrete definition or given one path to happiness. Wherever we are from and whatever we believe, we all have something to say, and we all have a different outlook on the world. I object to the increasingly patronising, infantilised version of womanhood found in the bestseller lists, where women are defined by nothing but their marital status and the shoes they wear. Virago’s list of wonderful novels express the multitude of different lives, attitudes and experiences women have led and continue to lead, and the variety of aspirations, none being any more valid than others, that they have chosen to pursue. I only wish these books were more widely read by women today.  I am proud to be co hosting a week of exploring such a diverse canon of women’s writing that expresses the diversity of the female sex, and I hope that those of you who are participating are finding plenty to provoke, inspire and interest you.

I am reading the exquisite Willa Cather this week. Her novels are filled with passionate, ambitious women, who go against the grain of society’s expectations for them. Alexandra Bergson in O, Pioneers! successfully transforms her father’s field into a business empire, and her greatest love is not a man, but a land that fills her heart with sublime joy and reassurance. A review will come at some point this week; in the meantime, I am thoroughly enjoying reading all of the wonderful contributions by so many of you, and will wrap up your posts this evening!



  1. teadevotee says:

    Fantastic, passionate post, Rachel. Agree – hurrah for Virago! I would never have read Sarah Waters or Margaret Atwood without them. On the Charlotte Yonge point – maybe the ‘point’ of feminist publishing (if there is just one!) is to represent women’s lives in all their diverse experiences, and for us to be able to read what women a hundred or so years ago were reading and so empathise with them more? Just a thought!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hello teadevotee! Thank you very much for coming on over! Yes, of course, you are perfectly right- and I am quite willing to accept that many women did, and still do, have no particular career aspirations and enjoy being at home. Nothing wrong with that whatsoever – the joy of feminism is choice! However I did just find it interesting, when I looked up Charlotte Yonge, that she didn’t marry and had this amazing career, when her books were all about keeping women indoors. It just didn’t sit right with me!

      1. teadevotee says:

        That is very odd, isn’t it… I wonder if that’s because that’s what the publishers would print? Or maybe a sort of George Eliot thing where the books are conventionally moral because she didn’t like people to judge her private life? So interesting to think on! I had never heard of her before your post but turns out I’m from just down the road from her so will look forward to reading her!

  2. m says:

    That was my first ever Willa Cather – and got me completely hooked. Even if The Professor’s House is now my favourite. Not that I’ve finished yet, in fact I still haven’t read My Antonia which I imagine is where most people start.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Glad to hear it Mary! I want to read The Professor’s House – I’ve heard it is excellent. Though Cather is consistently excellent so how do you choose a favourite?! I just started My Antonia and it’s already fantastic – you’d love it!

  3. savidgereads says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post Rachel as ever. (Sorry I have been lax on visits but all sorts going on with move and hospital visits etc etc.) I am so pleased I have popped by and been reminded of Virago reading week. I am scheduling lots of posts at the moment but will make sure I read a lovely green Virago within the next day or so and schedule a post (before more docs etc) especially in honour of this lovely Virago venture!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Simon! I glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 Not to worry, I completely understand – hectic lives and reading blogs are not particularly compatible! Glad to hear you’ll be taking part but only if you have time please – you should be relaxing more!

  4. Darlene says:

    I do envy your experience at university, Rachel, with all that wonderful reading…and thinking!

    Being greeted with blank stares when I recite the names of authors that I enjoy so much is frustrating. The re-issue of retro reads is fantastic but they are not showing up on the shelves of my community bookshop. Making space for what they perceive women want means those heaving shelves full of fluff. I wonder if a word with the manager would be worth a try? You have spurned me on to challenge the powers that be to at least offer an explanation. In a similiar situation we asked our local theatre manager why some cultural films passed us by, stopping in Toronto. We were told that it was up to the distributor to decide on what a city would endure. Well, thanks a lot for thinking we in Burlington were all eight year-old boys! In the meantime, I thank goodness almost every day for Virago and Persephone and do my best to pimp their offerings to anyone who will listen. Fabulous post!

    1. bookssnob says:

      It’s never too late to do an English degree, Darlene! You should consider it!

      I agree – it’s so frustrating that so many fantastic authors are practically unheard of, and most people prefer to read overhyped, bland novels that don’t reach anywhere near the heights of subtlety and beauty that so many Virago novels do. You should have a word with your local bookstore manager – so many assumptions are made about what women want to read – perhaps they read so much fluff because nothing else is made available? I was outraged when my local library back in London got rid of half the classics section (because ‘nobody’ read them – yes, perhaps because they were in a dingy, forgotten, hard to find corner!) and replaced it with shelves of ‘Chick Lit’ – actually titled that, too. I know they have to cater to all tastes, but why get rid of classic literature?!

      Pimp away Darlene! Thank goodness it’s you on that library counter in Burlington!

  5. daniel says:

    Such a great post! As someone who didn’t go to school for English Literature (regret) I’m so glad book bloggers like you and others are out there educating me on so many great writers and books. I have found so many now, I feel I owe you all something. I find the chick-lit you write about so depressing and it’s refreshing there’s Virago and Persephone out there giving us more “meat.”
    You deserve a compliment on your writing as well! We’re exactly the same age, and where you sound like an educated professor, I sound like a valley girl.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Daniel! Well, you know, an English degree is really just reading and navel gazing, so you didn’t really miss out – I wish I had studied something more practical sometimes!

      Glad you hate chick lit too – and that you’re a man embracing women’s literature.!

      Hahahaha that made me laugh! You’re very kind to say so. And you don’t sound like a Valley Girl at all! I’ve heard them speak, and they certainly don’t talk about books. All they say is ‘like, like, like’ and I want to smack them!

      1. daniel says:

        Like totally thankssss!

  6. Tui says:

    whoo hooo! Big arm pump from another English Lit. grad, Virago reading person who thoroughly enjoyed this post. I discovered Winifred Holtby through Virago, as well as E.H. Young. *bookmarked*

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you, Tui! Glad you enjoyed it! Oh Winifred Holtby is such a good find – I have yet to read an E H Young but I have copies waiting in my pile of collected but unread Viragos!

  7. Patricia says:

    Rachel – As I read your post I was whooping with delight. It encapsulates my thoughts to a letter. I was studying for my degree when Virago started publishing these neglected works. Once I discovered them, I immediately became a dedicated reader and collector. Over the years, there have been so many works I have enjoyed by “Virago authors”. The works have such a range of women’s stories of their experiences, both professional and private and in all circumstances. In a preface to one of her own works, Elizabeth Taylor indicated that she enjoyed her domestic jobs but also loved and enjoyed her writing and was able to balance the two. This surely reflects that the public and the private sphere of womens’ lives is not incompatible. Women must have the choice to pursue their ambitions if they so want to but must also be free to make the choice if they wish to remain in the private domain. The enduring philosophy must be the right to choose their individual paths in life and work without society placing restrictions on the roles they must adopt.

    Thank you for co-hosting Virago Week. One of my selections for the reading is The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West, a woman who followed her own independent paths and led an extraordinary life.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you, Patricia, for a wonderful comment. How lucky you are to have been with Virago from the very beginning! I entirely agree with you on your thoughts about women’s private and public spheres and how we should be free to make our own choices about what we find fulfilling. Virago authors express such a wide variety of opinions about the different types of lives women can live, without judgement or stereotype. I wish society could be the same!

      You are so welcome – The Edwardians is an excellent book and I hope you enjoy it. I grew up very near the house where it is set and as such it always reminds me of childhood summers spent playing in its grounds.

  8. Katherine says:

    I have to say, blogs like this inspire me. I’m a freshman in college and I desperately want to be a book editor, to work with the world’s next great authors. And, it is so difficult to stay enthusiastic when so many of my friends and family are baffled by my reading tastes and interests. As of late, anything that can keep me coming back for more is deeply appreciate and eagerly anticipated. I certainly will be looking deeper into Virago and all its authors have to offer.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Katherine! What a lovely thing to say. Most of my friends and family don’t share my reading taste either which is why blogging is so fantastic – come and hang out with us, and you’ll see that you are not alone! Check out Virago and Persephone Books, too – both are brilliant (and unfortunately, British, so not THAT easy – but not impossible – for Americans to get hold of) and will give you some amazing authors to try. I hope to see you around here often!

  9. Elish says:

    This blog was recommended by my English Literature teacher, and I am very pleased to have followed through with it. This blog is encouraging, and even humorous, for I myself took an English Lit AP course with the notion of riding it through lazily with a book in my hand and a cup of coffee in the other every day; however in turn I am faced with thought provoking, enormous ideas on morals, feminism, society, values, ambition, creation, destruction, and so forth. We’ve read a number of feminist books this year, and I, too, wanting to become a writer am thankful to see a group with the same insight that not all women want a diamond ring marriage at the end of the tunnel. There’s so much more to life than books you know, but not much more. And to be married as the end is fatal.

    On another note: “Of course, many women novelists of the 19th century felt the need to advocate an ideal lifestyle for women that they did  not necessarily subscribe to in their novels because they needed to meet the expectations of their audience, who largely did believe that a woman’s place was in the home” is insightful yet I believe it’s not necessarily women in their captive expected lifestyle hypocritically living, for I believe men and women and children and teens and all humanity alike do the same. Anyone feeling trapped into a “social norm” will do anything to escape it. Even if it means to be a hypocrite. Women aren’t hypocritical in their claims, they are advocating ideas. Ideas are formed and shared, but aren’t transformed into norms until centuries later. The ideas that Charlotte Bronte shared in Jane Eyre of independence and balancing emotional passion with logic and selflessness are seen today extensively with women on a “desperate pursuit of diamond engagement rings, a cottage in the country, celebrity gossip and a Prince Charming”

    Overall, this entry was refreshing to read. Substantial!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Look at me being recommended by an English teacher! I am flattered! Thanks so much for coming on over and sharing your very insightful thoughts, Elish. I’m glad you’re already being exposed to some feminist texts and are enjoying discussing and thinking about the issues they raise. I think it’s important to be aware that casual sexism and limited expectations for women are still rife worldwide, and knowing that you have a choice not to fit into those social expectations is very useful as you grow older and begin to forge an independent life. I wouldn’t say marriage was fatal – a lot of marriages don’t work out, but many do, and I think there is something truly beautiful in a partnership between a man and woman that is full of respect and trust and love. Sadly those seem to be few and far between these days, but one day I hope to be lucky enough to be part of one of those partnerships myself.

      Your point about being forced to live a hypocritical life is an interesting one – and I’m sure this did apply to many Victorian women who weren’t free to live in the way they would ideally choose to. Thank you so much for bringing that up!

  10. As usual, Rachel, your enthusiasm and your knowledge about books and reading excite me and move me to want to read more. I am a fairly new grandmother, as you well know, and I must say, with complete confidence, that is women like yourself, well-educated, and, even more so, deep thinking, with ideas and thoughts and such an uplifting aura that gives me hope for the future. ‘Tis a good feeling.

    Something new happened to me today. I had about 45 minutes to spare between meetings. I drove to a used bookstore, knowing I shouldn’t but lacking self-control. Within three minutes of being inside the shop, I looked down on a shelf, and what should pop up and look straight at me but Mollie Painter-Downes’ One Fine Day! Now, I’ve a rather busy week and I’m almost through with Gilead, but, I just may get in one Virago Classic after all. At least I will give it a try.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Penny, you are so lovely and complimentary! Thank you so much. I am glad I make you feel that way!

      HOW fantastic! And you know what? One Fine Day is a pretty tricky title to find. I think it was clearly sitting there, waiting for you – meant to be! I hope you find time to read it, but at the same time, it is not a book to be rushed, and neither is Gilead, so do take your time. I look forward to reading your thoughts – I so hope that you love it as much as me!

  11. Carolyn says:

    Oh Rachel, this is fantastic! Yes, yes! I too began to think more seriously about feminism in university, but it was in a history class about the world wars. I was writing a paper about how women were allowed into the army for the first time in WW2 (to do administrative work, so more men could fight) but discovered that any women in uniform was considered by the soldiers to be basically there to provide them with sex, at any time. Also the spread of STDs was blamed on women, even though it was obviously the behaviour of the soldiers that kept it traveling everywhere, but they were treated while the women wouldn’t be. It really made me think.

    I’m so glad for Virago writers, even though it’s frustrating that it’s so hard to find them over here!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Carolyn! I can’t believe that about women soldiers – I’ve never read that before. It just goes to show, doesn’t it? Just 50 years ago, too! It makes me so angry that women of my grandmother’s generation were treated in such a way, when they worked so hard to show just how capable they were of doing everything men did.

      I know – when I move back to England I shall send you Virago care packages, rest assured! 🙂

      1. Carolyn says:

        What a great discussion you’ve got over here! I mostly read feminist historians in my research for that WW2 paper, so they may not have looked at every woman’s experience of working in the war, but they did give examples from the writings of some women at the time and part of the paper had to be based on oral research, so I talked to my sweet old great-aunt about her experience in the Canadian navy (she actually traveled around the country performing in recruitment drills!) and she said she’d be felt up on trains in the dark, simply because she was wearing a uniform, while her friends who weren’t in uniform, weren’t touched. She was a christian, so she’d hold their hands and pray the whole train ride if they tried to do that!! Too funny, but also sad. There was something else in my research, about a Canadian whispering campaign, against women in the army, maybe implying that they were all producing illegitimate babies from the soldiers? I can’t quite remember, but something like that. I saw comments that those women were the ‘groundsheet of the army’, ie, there to sleep on… Pamphlets for soldiers to stop the spread of STDs would show pictures of veneral diseases personified as women, calling gonorrhea and syphilis ‘good time girls’ and telling the the men to beware of these killer women, essentially (there’s actually an example on the wikipedia page for gonorrhea!) It got me pretty mad and I wrote a really good paper on it, my professor was very impressed. 🙂

        (Also, thank you so much for the offer! I shall look forward to it.)

      2. bookssnob says:

        Carolyn, that is just so fascinating – I never knew there was this side to women at war and I want to learn more! Your poor grandmother – but good for her for standing her ground!

        Get excited! You’ll have to wait a few months but then they’ll be coming, thick and fast!

  12. Dear Rachel – a wonderful post… I don’t enjoy chicklit but we write culturally about what’s happening to us. Many of our Virago authors were married young and so know the reality of good, weak or poor marriage.. Does chicklit fill the place in time in our culture of it taking a long time for women, and men, to settle down. Virago women were writing of the freedom they wished they had are chicklits writing about the relationships they had? I shall mull this over.

    1. bookssnob says:

      You make an excellent point, Joan! I think in our society, as less people ARE settling down, the idea of settling down has become romanticised. We take for granted the freedoms our predecessors fought for and wrote about, and instead focus on the things that were their mundane reality, like marriages and nice houses. They didn’t think much of these, as most women married young and romance and marriage was not really something to be attained…nowadays it seems to be the pinnacle of a woman’s achievement rather than something everyone does. I shall have to think about this one. A thought provoking comment, thank you!

  13. Chrissy says:

    Oh Rachel, you sound very angry (is that too strong a word?) on behalf of women in the last century who had little outlet for their intelligence and ambition. I knew many of them when they were much older and I was starting out – wonderful women who were generous to the young but at the same time wistful about their rather uneventful lives. They had to find satisfaction in smaller things and I remember my mother often saying that ‘you children’ (this to completely grown up daughters!) were what had made her life worthwhile and bearable. I’m still sad about that. She started a novel, got passionately interested in displaced people after the war… and then nothing more.

    1. bookssnob says:

      No, Chrissy, you are right – I AM angry that so many women had to live lives that did not do justice to their talents and ambition. My grandmother sounds like your mother – a very intelligent and talented woman whose ambition got left by the wayside by necessity when she had children. I wish more had been possible for them. I am sorry that your mother didn’t have the life she wanted, either. But thankfully, at least we don’t have the same fate.

  14. I recognise this module title (although it wasn’t one I took, it was a bit modern for my tastes); in fact, having read through your back catalogue of posts a bit it would seem that we went to the same university for the same subject! The internet is indeed a small place.

    Although I’m very glad to have left literary theory behind me, I really enjoyed this post. One of the things I’ve come to love about Virago books is the way that they can focus on small, domestic matters (feeding your children, managing a household, nursing a sick relative) and make them seem just as significant as larger matters with wider implications (journeying across the seas, wars, etc.) and rightly so.

    1. bookssnob says:

      What a coincidence! If you started in 2004, we were in the same year!

      I was a Victorian and feminist specialist..I see from your blog you were more of a medievalist. That was not my cup of tea at all!

      Glad you enjoyed the post and what you say about the significance of seemingly trivial domestic lives is very true. It is the little things in life that often carry the most weight, I find. The small moments that come to mean everything.

      1. Old English Rose says:

        I was 2005, so a year after you. How strange!

  15. ellen says:

    let me say this at the start: i LOVE this post, especially this line: “I object to the increasingly patronising, infantilised version of womanhood found in the bestseller lists, where women are defined by nothing but their marital status and the shoes they wear.”

    i’m not familiar with either virago or persephone, so i’m loving all the attention these presses are getting from book blogs. i’m sometimes a little ashamed of my own reading list, which is heavily dominated by men. in some part i think this is a reaction against those pastel-covered novels…i’m not interested in reading them, and that so many novels by women that DON’T fit into that category are marketed with the same sort of naseua-inducing covers pushes me to read books about “dude stuff.” i’ll be checking out both these presses when i have a chance to, and am looking forward to reading your cather reviews. she’s on my list of Big Female Authors to tackle this year, and now i’m planning to get to her sooner rather than later.

    and again, seriously, amazing post.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hello Ellen! Thank you for your lovely comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post.

      You MUST check out both the Virago and Persephone catalogues – they are brilliant and will widen your reading life in ways you never thought possible! It’s interesting that you say you have moved onto male authors to escape the chick lit style of modern women’s fiction – I can see why that would make sense! But there is so much out there that isn’t cliched and patronising and I hope that you might find some good recommendations during this week for some good books by non chick lit women authors!

      Thank you so much!

  16. Hear, hear!

    Willa Cather is divine; I loved My Antonia years ago & I am only sorry it took me so long to pick up The Song of the Lark (which is also fantastic) or anything else.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Claire! I am glad you are in agreement.

      I love Willa Cather and I think I am going to blitz through the other novels of hers I have piled up around here while I am in the zone…My Antonia is wonderful, and I am desperate to read The Song of the Lark after reading all of the brilliant reviews!

  17. Laura says:

    Rachel, whenever I see a post from you in my feed reader, I feel compelled to stop everything and read it. Whether it’s a book review, reflections on your year in the Big Apple, or a commentary such as this, your posts always make for great reading and I find them inspiring.

    When I read this yesterday, I immediately shared your post on Facebook and in Google Reader, but I forgot to leave you a comment. Just came back to remedy that situation. I’m thoroughly enjoying Virago Reading Week … thank you!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Laura! You really flatter me! Thank you so much. That’s such a lovely, lovely thing to say. I’m so glad you enjoy what I write. That means a lot to me!

      You are so kind! I’m glad you are enjoying the Week – it’s going so well and I have been overwhelmed by the level of participation. Absolutely fantastic!

  18. Danielle says:

    Wonderful and inspiring post–it reminds me all over again just why I love Viragos and will buy them whenever I see them without regard to what the story is about–because I know in almost all cases it will be good and thought provoking. What would we do without publishers like these? I agree wholeheartedly with you about chick lit–I expect it serves a purpose but it’s sad that there is so much more of that sort of story being published these days than the sort Virago publishes and has published. There’s a reason why these distinctive books with their green covers endure (even when they are sadly OOP in too many cases) and those pink covered books will be left to the remainder tables. And I hope you are enjoying Willa Cather–I thought My Antonia was just brilliant!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you, Danielle! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. You are so right about Virago – even if a book wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea, I still find things in all of the Viragos I’ve read to make me think; they truly widen my horizons. I’m glad that you are of the same mind as me when it comes to chick lit – but of course you are! -and yes, Viragos will endure far longer than terrible stories about desperate women will. Thank you – I am thoroughly enjoying Willa Cather! I really need to write a review of O,Pioneers! actually – will try and get that done tonight.

  19. Virginia says:

    Thanks for the mention in your post, Rachel. What you say about Charlotte M. Yonge is very interesting, and now, I’m inspired to find out more about her and her motivations to write about subservient women when she led the life of a career woman. In the Victorian period, the ideal of the “angel in the house” was so pervasive that I’m sure many women yearned for it even if it was not possible in their own lives or if they led very different lives from that ideal. I think the same can be said today but in a different way. Many people I’ve encountered have been perplexed at my unattached state, wondering why I do not have a boyfriend at the age of 27. I realize that they are not trying to be judgmental (though they perhaps are), but my independence is so contrary to their experience that they do not understand it. In some ways, today, it is okay for a woman to have a career, but it is not okay for her not to have a husband and family. Personally, if I ever meet the right guy, I would love to get married and have children, but I also feel that I should be grateful for the single life I lead right now and the freedom to travel and to pursue my own interests. I can understand why women both today and in the Victorian period would look at an ideal that they are not living with yearning (I have plenty of Bridget Jones moments, days, and weeks myself), but it is sad that so many people cannot find the beauty in the lives they are leading today and the opportunities presented to them. Seeing the beauty in an independent life, though, would have been a much more difficult task during the Victorian period when women had far fewer opportunities and when the independent life for women was not given any validity at all. I hope, though, that we can increasingly see the validity of the different vocations women lead, are able to be grateful for our own, and celebrate those different from ourselves.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Virginia, for yet another wonderful, wise comment, that I entirely agree with on every level. I too wish that people could see the beauty of the life they lead rather than constantly yearning after something else. I feel we as a society have romanticised marriage and children so much that even when it is attained, it still cannot live up to the expectations promised by chick lit novels and fairytales. I am glad that it is a valid choice to be independent these days, but I wish that women who are single weren’t pitied and patronised the way they are. I don’t mind being single at all – it just seems that everyone else minds me being single! I’m so glad you are content and can celebrate the benefits of your current situation – I know I am thoroughly making the most of not being tied to anyone, and I won’t let anyone make me feel bad about it!

      1. Virginia says:

        Thanks, Rachel, and I totally agree with all that you said. Marriage is romanticized, and unless you find the right person, it often does not work out. Even if you do find the right person, it has both its good times and bad. The best marriages are between people that can carry each other through the rough as well as the good. Although fairy tales can be fun to read/watch, they often don’t go beyond the “happily ever after” bit and show what the marriage is actually like. We need more people to champion all vocations and appreciate us for who we are and where we are at right now. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

      2. bookssnob says:

        Exactly, Virginia – there’s a reason why most books stop at the Happy Ever After, and I think the reason why divorce is so rife these days is the amount of unrealistic expectations people have of marriage. It’s a real shame! Thank you for your wonderful insights as always Virginia!

  20. Catie says:

    Really enjoyed your post, though I’m not sure I fully agree with you on the chick-lit front. Although women’s writing may still be under-represented in the literary canon there are a wide range of literary women writing today- women’s writing is not limited to chick-lit even if it is a popular genre. Though I don’t read much chick-lit or romance, I started reading a blog about romance writing (Smart Bitches Trashy Books, if you’re interested), and the writers’ passionate defence of romance as a form of women’s writing and reading has made me rethink some of the ways I look at those types of books.

    So I guess my point is: chick-lit is part of that diverse range of writing that is ‘women’s writing’ (though of course not all of it is written by women) rather than the only form of expression women have currently. If that were the case that would indeed be sad! Because as you say “We are complex, conflicting, passionate, intelligent, political, ambitious individuals who cannot be distilled into one concrete definition or given one path to happiness.”

    1. bookssnob says:

      Catie – thanks so much for your comment. I didn’t mean to imply that chick lit was the only literature being produced by women in our modern times – or the only form of literary expression women had. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear. Rest assured, I am more than aware of the wonderful range of literary fiction produced by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, A S Byatt, Joyce Carol Oates, to name just a few. My problem is the mass marketing of chick lit as if it represents the voice of all women, and its patronising and frivolous treatment of women’s lives. I know that all literature supposedly has its merits, but I really don’t see the merit in reducing women to grasping man obsessed materialists. I feel like they make no effort to explore anything of real meaning or depth, and I find it quite depressing that they are used as a measure of womanhood today.

      However I am intrigued by the blog you mention, and I do think there could be some interesting debate involved in taking a deeper look at what the themes and characters in chick lit novels say about today’s society and attitudes towards women. I’ll go over and have a look.

      Thanks for giving me something to think about – I appreciate it!

  21. vipula says:

    Let me start with saying that I love your header. I haven’t been getting a lot of time to read a lot of blogs lately but yours is one that I really enjoy because its always more thoughtful and complete rather than just general ramblings.
    I have never studied literature so more often than not I miss the subtext but I completely agree with you in the place of woman in literature. I got introduced to Virago & Persephone through the world of blogging and though I am not thoroughly impressed with whatever I have read of those publications I do think they are miles ahead of any best-seller fare. Some of them are just brilliant – Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, The Diary of a Provincial Lady

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Vipula! Thanks for coming by. I’m glad you love the new header, and my blog – thank you for your lovely compliment.

      Virago and Persephone are wonderful discoveries for the reader weary of much of today’s modern fiction aimed at women and I am glad that we are of like minds! So many brilliant books – I heartily agree on the Provincial Lady and I MUST get around to the Mollie Panter-Downes stories.

  22. Brenna L says:

    I have never really had that mindset that allows me to completely get into a book or really analyze what it is saying. But I have noticed this trend of women constantly being put down. The fact that they publish these novels just to focus on women writers is such a good thing. I believe that women writers have so much to say and are barely heard by the reading public, even though they are completely equal and at certain times, rise above men in their intellectual thinking and thought process.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Brenna, anyone can analyse a book! It’s not a special talent – I just pay attention to what is going on between the lines! I think the problem is that it’s only certain kinds of female writers/female stories that are being published today and it’s refreshing to have all these voices from the past republished to demonstrate just how intelligent, active, creative and politically involved women have always been, regardless of their perceived passivity in the annals of history. I am glad that you have noticed the disparity and are interested in reading more widely amongst women’s literature!

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